The Spanish writer Jorge Semprún, who died in June, survived Buchenwald and had a love-hate relationship with Communism in postwar Europe. A longtime friend remembers his star power and derring-do.
The charismatic Spanish writer Jorge Semprún, who died in June in Paris, had many identities, including an affinity for Jewish thought and Israel (in the 1990s he won Israel’s Jerusalem Prize). Some of his identities weren’t known even to his friends. During the 1950s and early 1960s he lived a secret life in Madrid as “Federico Sanchez,” recruiting intellectuals for the Spanish Communist Party. Meanwhile, in Paris, he collaborated with the filmmakers Alain Resnais and Constantin Costa-Gavras, writing the screenplays for their marvelously politically heated films: La Guerre est Fini and Stavisky for Resnais; Z and The Confession, or L’Aveu, for Costa-Gavras. La Guerre est Fini, Semprún’s most autobiographical screenplay—at least politically—concerns an exiled Spanish Communist, played by Yves Montand, and his bitter attempt to return home, only to be met with non-comprehension in a very different Spain.
I first knew of Jorge through the world of the Spanish dissident students I’d met in my late teens in postwar Paris. I had been a restless Manhattan high-school kid during World War II, and my sense of the world was informed by the war, a war in which 40 million people died and, though we didn’t yet call it the Shoah, Jews were murdered through all of Europe. Hollywood movies segued into wartime glamour—female stars like Claudette Colbert seemed to dance around the world in high heels. Doris Day, domesticity, and avocado-colored refrigerators came later, in the 1950s. Mark, my older brother, had enlisted in the Air Corps; I was so scared when the family, including me, his only sibling, accompanied him to Camp Dix, N.J., where he was inducted. I was also well aware that my father, a private in World War I, had been mustard-gassed while a scout in the trenches at Saint-Mihiel and had to spend several years recovering in an American Army hospital in France. When he returned to New York, he became a successful lawyer, but after Mark joined the Air Corps, he had recurring nightmares about the trenches. I knew if a stray bullet had gone in the wrong direction in France I might never have been born. I would study maps of those earlier battlefields, wondering. My father had Austrian Jewish cousins who fought on the Austrian side—did he have his relatives in mind when he pointed out that he had killed young men just like himself?
Unfortunately I was the wrong age—still in high school—when the war ended. But wrong age or not, there would be only one postwar time in Europe, and I had to be part of it; college, which I grumpily attended for a few months when I was 17, could wait. When the State Department informed my parents that their underage daughter had applied for a passport and passage on the Jon Erickson, a reconverted troop ship, they were furious. After they calmed down, they persuaded me to wait a little longer with the promise that my mother would settle me in Paris in a more normal fashion.
They kept their word, and quite by chance on the ship going over, my mother met Norman Mailer’s mother, and Norman’s younger sister, Barbara, and I immediately became friends. It was spring 1948. Mrs. Mailer was bringing Norman a first copy of The Naked and the Dead, and my mother read it. When our ship docked in Cherbourg and our two families met, my mother, one of Norman’s first fans, firmly informed him: “You have written the great war novel.” Years later Norman would also add, laughing, “and she was also the only mother who asked me to take care of her daughter.”
Norman and his wife, Bea, had an apartment near the Luxembourg Gardens, where Barbara and I met Norman’s friends, including the Polish Jewish writer Jean Malaquais, who had fought with the Marxist POUM in Spain. Paris was cold—no heat, some rationing—yet its intellectual sizzle had the prominence politicians and talk shows have now. Camus and Sartre had furious fights over the existence of the Russian gulags; the huge French Communist Party, an accepted fixture of the French working class, still had the admiration of many intellectuals. (Véra Belmont’s 1985 film Rouge Baiser, or Red Kiss, depicts Jewish working-class Communists in Paris worshipping Stalin in the early 1950s and their bewilderment when one of their own returns from Russia. He yells at them that he was on his way to Israel—in reality he had been a mistreated Jew imprisoned in Siberia.)
The Spanish situation had other complexities. Ninety-five percent of the exiled Spanish workers were anarchists and Socialists, totally at odds with the Communists, and thus doubly marooned in a France that had no place for them. After the war Paris was chock-a-block with the displaced, particularly kids—Jews, Spaniards, Poles, French, a whole United Nations of adolescents. Sartre’s politics were undeniably askew. I felt his appeal to this younger generation (my generation) was predominantly emotional: The fatherless Sartre became father to the fatherless; his outdoor café table became their home, and existentialism their nationality.
Through Norman I met Paco Benet, a 21-year-old student at the Sorbonne from Madrid whose father had been shot in the Civil War. He was tall, with very blond hair, intense dark eyes, and very brainy. We quickly fell in love and stayed together five years. Spain then was a forgotten country, isolated behind Franco’s iron curtain. Paco felt he had to do something to raise morale; he didn’t want his generation to go down in history as having done nothing. Norman, on his way back to America for the reception of The Naked and the Dead, lent Paco his car, his sister Barbara, and me. We were to be the innocent-looking American decoys in a foray that only kids can dream up. The upshot of our petite unarmed Entebbe is that we rescued from the gulag near Madrid the son of the president of the Spanish government-in-exile, another student, and tried to persuade an anarchist worker to join us, but he was too afraid and later died in prison. We got through. And when the news traveled through the prisons (as these things do), there was apparently a great clanging of metal plates and cups. Back in France—Barbara had returned to New York—Paco and I hung out with the aging anarchists dying alone in Paris. And Paco started his small underground journal, Peninsula. It was smuggled across the Pyrenees into Spain to combat the ignorance bred by fascist and Communist propaganda. Paco and his friend José (Pepe) Martinez, with me helping, printed it on the cheap in Belleville. Paco’s brother Juan Benet (later to emerge as one of Spain’s greatest fiction writers) contributed his first short story to it. Peninsula’s motto was: “Neither Franco nor Stalin.”
So, why did Semprún and his friend the historian Fernando Claudin stay so long in the party, waiting until they were expelled in 1964? On a political level Semprún clearly wanted to carve out a new party, similar to Togliatti in Italy, destroying the Stalinist wing led by La Passionaria and Carrillo. Emotionally Semprún yearned for a permanent home: He was Spanish, yet his life consisted of almost permanent exile. To my mind his two best books are the extraordinarily moving The Long Voyage, about his deportation to Buchenwald, and What a Beautiful Sunday!, about a single day in Buchenwald, his life flashing this way and that, as scenes in a kaleidoscope. Another gem is his deeply meditative Literature or Life—in it he takes on the essential troubling questions of the 20th century.
The Autobiography of Federico Sanchez is about the period Semprún spent in Madrid, risking his life recruiting for the Communist Party—his successor was caught and executed. It’s hard to describe Madrid then. It had only a thin sliver of a middle class, which created an atmosphere intrinsically odd—you never knew when you would run into a bullfighter, a duke, a worker, or a poet, and Semprún came from one of Spain’s most distinguished aristocratic families. He was a Maura. His grandfather, the prime minister Antonio Maura, was a sort of Winston Churchill of Spain, and his father a leading politician in the Spanish Republic. When Carrillo and La Passionaria, the heads of the party, sarcastically called Semprún a bourgeois and a harebrained intellectual when he wanted the party to split from Moscow (in the style of euro-communism) they really were taking potshots at his social class. Semprún had spent his life in the party; it had to be excruciatingly difficult to be shunned by it.
Meanwhile, in the early 1960s, Pepe Martinez, from our Peninsula days, had created Ruedo Ibérico, the dissident publishing house and bookstore in Paris that had morphed into a fabled meeting place on the Left Bank for Spanish intellectuals. I met Juan Goytisolo there, and sometimes Claudin came around. I heard about Semprún, who was also loosely connected to Ruedo, from them, but didn’t meet him at that time.
Semprún waited 15 years before he dared look back at his time in Buchenwald. In his amazing first memoir, The Long Voyage, written when he was already taking leave of the Communist Party, with its aura of submerged clenched passion, he seems more comfortable describing his dazed, confused exit from Buchenwald after the Americans liberated it than reawakening nightmare memories about what happened to him and others, including the Jewish children he witnessed thrown directly into the crematorium. What Semprún does allow himself in his book are moments of sardonic anger. Upon his return to France he is denied his repatriation bonus. He is told by officials that he isn’t entitled to repatriation because he isn’t a French citizen. He thinks to himself he has left one foreign country, Germany, for another, France. Instead of the repatriation bonus due him the officials offer him cigarettes and order him to the back of the line. Someone yells, “Spanish Red!” And he reflects: So that is who I am—a Spanish Red!
Courtesy of the author
But did Semprún immediately comprehend the complexity of his own story when he was liberated from Buchenwald? I doubt it. His life had been one of tremendous losses braided with star power and derring-do. His adored mother died while he was still a child: He lost her, her comfortable love, his country, and his language. When Madrid fell, the family moved to Paris; at 15 Jorge entered the Lycée Henri IV, where he became, at least temporarily, a French boy. He learned to write exclusively in French. At the Sorbonne he excelled in philosophy. One minute he was a 19-year-old immersed in Proust; the next he was a kid in the FTP-MOI, the immigrant wing of the French Communist Party made up largely of Spaniards and Jews, then a member of the Spanish and then the French Communist Parties, ending up as an inmate in Buchenwald.
His close friend there was Josef Frank, a Czech Jew. The two survived together life under the Nazis: torture, starvation, humiliation, and horrendous cold. Costa-Gavras’ film The Confession, with a screenplay by Semprún, was based on Arthur London’s book about the l952 Slánsky trial. But the film was more than a film for him; it reflects his moral turning point, at least from Stalinism. Josef Frank was one of the 11 Czech Jewish intellectuals paraded in the trial. They were gruesomely strangled to death after being made to grovel in a public, Soviet-style confession. Of the 14 Czechs on trial, only the 11 Jews were murdered.
Years later Semprún delivered his essay “Reflections on Jewish and European Culture” to the French Judaic Society in Paris, his focus being the tremendous loss for Europe of its Jews. Where once the vibrant Jewish culture with its multiple voices and talents had culturally enriched Europe, particularly Germany at the end of the 19th century, there was now silence. The piece had all the marvelous twists and turns of a person deeply enmeshed in philosophy. (I published it in translation in The Reading Room.) At the time we discussed over the phone the possibility of Semprún’s giving a reading here with other Spanish writers, but he was not well.
While we talked I was remembering a transatlantic conversation we had while I was covering the 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie in Lyon and needed to know about the French Resistance there. Ordinarily I would have asked Pepe for details, but he had died an accidental death after his return to Madrid, and Ruedo was no more. So, I’d called Jorge in Paris. And as he talked I sensed in his pauses his excitement as he evoked those times. I was also remembering other transatlantic phone calls—the spring day in 1966 when Juan Benet called me from Madrid reluctantly telling me that Paco, who had been on a group anthropological dig exploring the habits of Bedouins, had been killed when his Jeep crashed in the desert.
And as I listened to Semprún’s reaching back into his special time, France under the Occupation, his soul and 20th-century tragedy braided as one, it occurred to me that so many American memoirs start with cruel and impossible beginnings but eventually end with the narrator’s triumph over circumstance. Jorge Semprún, to the contrary, starts with his memory of a Proustian lost paradise; his catharsis, his ending, is his vision of history.
Barbara Probst Solomon, an essayist, novelist, and journalist, became the first American and second woman to be awarded Spain’s top journalist award, the Francisco Cerecedo Prize, in 2008.